President Trump’s Justice Department is gearing up to sue universities with affirmative-action policies for “intentional race-based discrimination.” This is code for the idea that affirmative action, which grants a bit of extra consideration to historically marginalized groups, discriminates against white people.
What the Department of Justice blows right past is centuries of discrimination. This history must start, of course, with slavery. It bears repeating that African people were forcibly brought to this country en masse and, under threat and deed of violence, made to labor and create wealth for white people.
Even after slavery ended, racism certainly did not. Reparations were never made. A brief era of Reconstruction, which saw some resources redistributed and some political and economic power accrue to black Southerners, was crushed by a violent, white Southern “Redemption.”
Decades later, the New Deal helped usher in an era of middle-class wealth—for some. Politicians excluded the majority of black and Hispanic workers from the most significant new public program, Social Security, in order to win votes for the program from Southern Democrats. Sixty-five percent of African Americans were left out. The GI Bill, which almost single-handedly built the white middle class by offering discounted education and mortgages, was available only to veterans. Blacks were more likely to have been disqualified from service and even black veterans were shut out, thanks to local control over administration. Fewer than 100 out of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI Bill in New York and New Jersey were for homes bought by nonwhite people.
Thus were people of color excluded from “the bounty of public policy,” in the words of political scientist Ira Katznelson, while whites were able to enjoy “state-sponsored economic mobility.”
Housing segregation—fueled by deliberate public policy—continued beyond the GI Bill. Both local governments, through zoning ordinances, and the federal government, through New Deal home-ownership programs, redlined black neighborhoods, increasing the value of white homes and relegating black ones to inferior status. Black homeowners were also shut out of subsidized-mortgage programs that would have allowed them to buy better homes.
None of this was ever truly atoned for even when these policies were ended, civil-rights bills were passed, and fair lending became the law of the land. Instead, what followed was an era of mass incarceration that targeted people of color and kept them from employment and housing, let alone the opportunity to build wealth.
These forces are the reason that there has never been a generation of black children in the United States that has had an equal shot at economic mobility. According to a 2012 study, just a third of black adults will reach the middle class by middle age, compared with nearly 70 percent of whites, and their children will still be more likely than those of other races to fall down the economic ladder. Among Hispanics, meanwhile, about half will achieve middle-class status.
So the racial wealth gap continues to yawn wide. For every $1 of wealth saved by the median black family, according to a 2013 study, a white household has $13 tucked away; for every $1 set aside by a Hispanic family, a white one has $10. That chasm can’t be explained by different life choices. The median white person who has attended college has 7.2 times the wealth of a similarly educated black person and 3.9 times as much as a Hispanic person. The same pattern holds when comparing white, black, and Hispanic people with the same employment and family structures.
Affirmative action, then, is just one tepid attempt to make up for history. A leg up in accessing higher education won’t wipe this polluted slate clean. At every educational level, a young black man still has a smaller chance of getting a job than a young white man; a black man who has some college under his belt stands the same chance as a white high-school dropout.
Our country is still nowhere close to transcending our ugly, racist history and offering citizens an even playing field. Even calling the field uneven isn’t quite right; people of color are barely playing the same game.